Madagascar: The little engines that can

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    A few of Madagascar's vintage French taxis cluster in the capital city of Antananarivo.
    Radu Sigheti/Reuters
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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent

DIEGO SUAREZ, MADAGASCAR – Cuba has its finned 1950s American sedans, symbols of scarcity and seat-of-the-pants mechanics. In Madagascar the vehicular scene is French and funky.

On this vast island they rely on the hardy Renault 4 and boxy Citroën 2CV. Both models are long discontinued in France but live on in its far-flung former colonies, many as taxis.

It’s hard to ignore the taxis of Diego Suarez, Madagascar’s northernmost town. For one, they make a beeline for foreign visitors, honking loudly. For another, many are painted canary yellow, with a number encircled in black on the driver’s door. Under the hood is a block of vintage French engineering.

On a sweltering day in Diego Suarez, we hailed a yellow taxi. To reach our chosen beach, we had to turn off the coastal road and take a rutted track over a hill. At the first dip, our driver stopped and eyeballed the puddle.

Nervously, I asked in faltering French, “Can we pass this way?” The driver shrugged, with Gallic insouciance. “Of course, let’s go.”

With a roar and a lurch, the Renault 4 cleared the muddy pool. Its front-wheel drive and high clearance eased us past this and other obstacles, proving that you don’t need an SUV to off-road in Madagascar.

Which is handy in a country where most people can only dream of owning a car, let alone the latest model. The ancient Renaults, Peugeots, and Citroëns will keep chugging on the red-dirt roads for many more years.

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